Councillors debate merits of town halls
Public engagement meetings plagued by low attendance
By: Peter Boer
| Posted: Saturday, Oct 06, 2012 06:00 am
Most city councillors want to keep holding town hall meetings despite the low turnout at the three held this year.
Only six people, not counting councillors or city staff, attended the last town hall of 2012 at Fountain Park Recreation Centre on Wednesday afternoon. Coun. Cathy Heron, who is serving as deputy mayor, chaired the small meeting.
Approximately 40 people in total attended the three town halls held this year. The first, held on a Saturday in February during a snowstorm, had the highest attendance at roughly 20 people. Another 16 turned out at the end of May for an evening chat.
“The disappointing thing is we don’t get a good turnout of people,” said Coun. Malcolm Parker. “Obviously the first year was just trying to do a test to see what public attendance would be like and I think we got a handle on that.”
The open mike sessions were deliberately scheduled on different days of the week at different times in different venues to give the public different opportunities to attend.
“The big challenge is how do you get more people out?” Parker said. “People who have come have always expressed the opinion that they liked it.”
Many of those people have been regular visitors. Roughly half of those who attended the first meeting attended either the second or in some cases, all three meetings. At Wednesday’s meeting, only two of the six hadn’t attended one of the previous town halls.
Members of the St. Albert Taxpayers Association attended every meeting and dominated the discussion at the last two, focusing their criticisms on high taxes and the downtown area redevelopment plan (DARP).
That fact did not go unnoticed by Mayor Nolan Crouse.
“I think that what we’ve seen is a few people dominate a lot of hours and topics,” Crouse said. “Let’s look ahead instead of looking back. There’s too much time looking back. Let’s look at where the community is going.”
But the rest of council says it doesn’t matter how many people show up or what they want to discuss – the meetings are still worthwhile.
“I guess it’s always worthwhile to try and do something like that,” said Coun. Cam MacKay. “I think the reality of the situation is (people) are just not that interested in politics until it affects them.”
Coun. Wes Brodhead said he sees the merit in the meetings but wonders if the format needs changing to bring out more people. More people might attend if the meeting was focused on one issue, or allowed for a discussion with individual councillors, similar to speed dating.
“I still endorse it. I think what we need to find is a better mechanism, something more compelling to the people,” Brodhead said.
Council will review its public engagement strategy later this year.
Coun. Cathy Heron thinks the town hall meeting format works. She said she and some other councillors might run them independently if council’s review results in the meetings being dropped.
“I know it’s the same people that attend but I find one-on-one conversation really helps to enlighten them on our position and they can enlighten us on theirs,” Heron said.
The city has tentatively scheduled two town halls for 2013, one in the winter and one in the summer. None are scheduled in October due to the municipal election.